By Travis Mounts
A dark anniversary passed quietly on Monday, Jan. 21.
That day marked the 28th anniversary of the shooting at Goddard Junior High School that killed one person and injured three more.
Principal James McGee died that day. He was 35. Two teachers, Donald Harris, then 39 years old, and Dawn Swearingen 32, were injured. Also shot was student Daniel Williams, 14.
A student, 14-year-old James Alan Kearbey, was responsible for the crimes. Kearbey – described at the time as a loner with a temper, someone who struggled to fit in, and a student who was bullied – was caught later that day. He eventually pleaded guilty and was imprisoned until his 21st birthday – the harshest punishment that state law allowed at the time.
As school shootings increased in the late 1980s, the Goddard school shooting was often used in the media as a reference point. But as the number of shootings and the number of people killed in many of those shootings increased, what happened here began to fade into history for many people.
But for a number of people involved that day, each January or each school shooting serves as a reminder of that day. The impact of that day continues today for many of them.
Rick Kilmer was the athletic director and a physical education teacher at Goddard Junior High in 1985. He was in the school office with McGee just before 11 a.m. when someone said there was a student with a gun in the hallway. They went into the hallway where they saw Kearbey, dressed in camouflage and carrying a rifle.
Kilmer said McGee called to the student twice in a calm voice.
“Alan. Alan,” McGee said, using Kearbey’s middle name.
“He turned and put the gun at his hip and fired,” Kilmer said, adding that the situation did not seem real. “I’m thinking, ‘That kid’s going to get kicked out of school for shooting blanks at us.’”
McGee was hit directly, while Swearingen – who also was in the hallway – was injured by shrapnel.
“His last words were, ‘Oh, my God, it’s real,’” Kilmer said of McGee. “And he slipped down the wall.”
Kilmer said the shots happened so fast he thought only two shots were fired, but eight rounds were later found on the floor.
Kilmer got on the school intercom system and warned teachers to lock the doors and to not let anybody in or out. He pulled Swearingen and McGee into the school office and began providing first aid. McGee was pronounced dead early that afternoon.
In those days, schools didn’t have crisis plans or lockdown procedures like they do today. Most didn’t have radios for school officials to talk to each other or between buildings.
“I did things that day on instinct,” Kilmer said.
That included keeping students in the building and parents out until the building was secured. That’s standard procedure at many schools today.
Moments after the first shots were fired, Kilmer heard another volley of shots. That’s when someone else tried to stop Kearbey, and Harris and Williams were shot.
Kearbey exited school, bypassing the lunchroom that was crowded with 200 students in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades.
“That’s were I was supposed to be,” Kilmer said.
Marti Johnson of Goddard calls the shooting “a watershed event” in her life.
“Every time (a school shooting) happens, you’re right back at it,” she said.
Each new school shooting takes her back to 1985.
“I think everybody has the same thought, ‘Here we go again,’” she said.
Goddard was a smaller town then, with about 1,400 people. It was easier to know more of the population. Johnson’s nephew, Jim Lancaster, and Kearbey had been hanging out at her house a couple nights before the shooting happened.
Johnson was a television producer at KSN Channel 3. She learned of the shooting through a police scanner, which was always on.
“You didn’t hear anything other than what you listened for,” she said, meaning specific codes. The first call to EMS asked for a captain to set up a triage.
“I knew the address was the school in Goddard,” she said. “I stopped for a minute…I knew the phone lines would jam and we wouldn’t be able to call anyone in Goddard.”
She called her sister, who worked at the medical office in Goddard. Her sister – who has since passed away – and the doctor left immediately to go to the school, even though the site wasn’t secured.
“They were the first responders,” she said. A Goddard police officer, along with a Sedgwick County Sheriff’s deputy and a Kansas Highway Patrolman, were on the scene quickly, too.
Johnson didn’t leave the TV station for days. Back then, there was no Internet and KSN had the only satellite uplink in the area. They sent video to all three broadcast networks and a start-up cable news station called CNN.
Johnson was already tiring of the news business, but the aftermath led to a career change. Her husband also was in the news business, working at KAKE Channel 10. He’s still employed there. She said they received threatening phone calls over the news coverage and had their tires slashed.
“Anger is a common response, and they were going to be angry because their town was disrupted,” she said.
Video of McGee being taken from the school with Johnson’s sister and the doctor in the shot covered in blood was something she couldn’t shake.
“There was a point where I couldn’t do it anymore. I know these people,” she said.
Jim Lancaster, Johnson’s nephew, remembers being at lunch on Jan. 21, 1985. That’s where Kearbey should have been, too.
“We had the same lunch period,” said Lancaster, who now is a police officer for the city of Goddard. He and the other students were locked in the lunchroom for 2-1/2 hours. It took some time before Kearbey was finally apprehended in a tree row in a field south of town.
Lancaster was an eighth grade student, a year behind Kearbey.
“I was shocked and a little sad. I knew Alan, and he didn’t have a great home life,” he said. Bullying was a problem for Kearbey.
“His intent was to find them (bullies). He had some issues with some of the jocks,” Lancaster said. “I doubt any of us will know what made him snap that day.”
The events that day led Lancaster to become a law enforcement officer. He considered teaching and studied education for a semester at Wichita State University before pursuing law enforcement.
“There’s something gratifying about being able to help some else in their darkest time,” he said. He joined the Goddard Police Department in 2007 after beginning his career in Hesston and then working in Bel Aire.
Kearbey had some run-ins with the law after his release, including a 2001 standoff with Wichita police where he threatened to take his own life a day after assaulting his girlfriend.
Lancaster was familiar with that incident but never talked to Kearbey after the shootings.
“We were friends,” he said.
Marc Bennett, the new Sedgwick County District Attorney, also was a ninth grader at Goddard Junior High in 1985, although he wasn’t friends with Kearbey. He’s said in previous interviews that the events then did not lead him to be attorney.
“I think I was affected more by the Columbine shootings (in 1999). With the Connecticut shootings (in December), that was a thing unto itself. It is its own brand of horror,” he said.
But the event still comes to mind each January, and again when there’s another school shooting in another community like Goddard.
“It’s amazing how many people are still affected by it,” he said.
Kilmer took over as interim principal following Jim McGee’s death. In the days and weeks that followed, the Goddard School District helped set a precedent for how to help students deal with tragedies.
A crisis team was formed with numerous counselors plus the school nurse and administrators.
“The one thing I can say is we had a veteran staff. We lost our principal, but it was because of a veteran staff and the strong support of parents we got through it,” he said. That same school year, Goddard Junior High dealt with the loss of a student who died of hepatitis.
“They became something of a model for schools around the state,” he said. “Goddard became much more progressive.”
Radios became standard issue. Several years later, the district established its own police force.
Goddard Junior High students raised $3,500 in an hour one day to help create a memorial to McGee.
Kilmer, who retired in June 2010 after a career of more than 40 years – all of which was spent in the Goddard School District, said the events changed him forever.
“I became more sensitive to things, more sensitive to life. I hurt when people hurt,” he said. “I look back and see where I grew as a person. I grew stronger in my faith. I tend to see things differently.”
There is a bond among those who were there, too.
“Those of us who went through it, we’re family. We found out a lot about ourselves,” he said.
McGee left behind a wife and two children. His third child was born a few months after his death.
Donald Harris died on Feb. 20, 1998, at the age of 52. He suffered a heart attack while jogging.